Around 6pm on a sunny Friday, a handcuffed Catholic priest, Father Thomas Muhosha, emerged from the High Court in Zomba where he is being tried in connection with the death of Macdonald Masambuka, a 22-year-old person with albinism in Machinga. Masambuka’s body was found buried in a garden weeks after he had gone missing on March 9.
The search for the young man prompted Amnesty International to petition government to end a culture of impunity fuelling the killings of the minority group being hunted purpotedly for their body parts.
On April 16, Malawians were gripped with shock when police arrested Muhosha in Nayuchi, and Zomba Diocese Bishop George Tambala said he had learnt with shock that the arrest was in connection with the disappearance of Masambuka.
Muhosha is among 12 accused persons, including villagers suspected to have strangled their peer, a clinician said to have offered to buy dry bones and a police officer allegedly connected to buyers of body parts at the centre of the illegal trade in human parts he was supposed to stop.
On Friday, the priest, clad in a reddish checkered shirt and black trousers, twice ventured into the dimly lit courtroom in handcuffs—and he uttered no word as police detective Zione Zimba detailed how he and other accused persons were detained.
All the dozen in the dock deny the accusations, save for Alfred Yohane.
Earlier last week, the man, who has passed a mental test to stand a murder trial, broke down in awe as he asked the court why some of those who took part in killing Masambuka and auctioning his body were not on trial.
Since last week Monday, High Court Judge Zione Ntaba has been hearing State evidence in which it is alleged that Yohane and his suspected accomplices engaged police officer Chikondi Chileka, who allegedly contacted Muhosha to buy the bones after clinician Lumbani Kamanga bizarrely refused to purchase them at the 11th hour.
According to Zimba, Chileka belonged to a police department established to stop organised crime involving killings of people with albinism, which are common in Machinga District.
The case of Masambuka, the 22nd murdered person with albinism in the country, could lift a lid on how those who are supposed to protect vulnerable persons may be part of the gruesome attacks, said Association of People with Albinism in Malawi (Apam) executive director Bonface Massa after the body was exhumed on April 1.
Throughout the week, Justice Ntaba heard 10 out of 13 State witnesses to determine whether each of the accused has a case to answer.
Standing in the courtroom slightly bigger than a volleyball court, where only a yellowish light bulb glows over a judge’s desk in a darkish aura sustained by unlit 19 bulbs in a soak-stained ceiling, Zimba spoke for hours to shed the light on the mysterious killing of Masambuka.
The court heard that in February, Yohane and Bashir Lilongwe asked for Masambuka’s number from his brother, Cassim.
The sibling is quoted in a police statement as having offered the contact when they told him someone was offering K40 million for bones of a person with albinism.
Yohane and company reportedly called the late Masambuka constantly until March 9, when he left his father in a maize field supposedly to chat with them.
The father told the court that his son vanished that day after getting a call around 9am.
However, Legal Aid Bureau lawyer Trouble Kalua questioned the stated timing of the last call as Masambuka’s call log, which was retrieved from a burnt handset found near his grave, shows the first call on the said date came around 3pm.
The phone was tendered as evidence in court along with a bicycle which he rode to meet the people who had reportedly called him for a chat.
Zimba, who has worked in the Criminal Investigations Department for 15 years of her 33-year police career, said interrogations showed that Masambuka was strangled and buried in a garden near a graveyard in Yohane’s village.
According to the detective, this was the start of the drama which culminated in the detention of Muhosha, a clinician who owns a private clinic in Machinga and her fellow police officer who worked at Nselema in the district.
She said the law enforcers swooped on Kamanga following interrogations in which Yohane and other suspects stated that they wanted to sell Masambuka’s body to the health worker at about K10 million, but he told them that he only purchases dry bones not corpses.
Zimba quoted the accused as having said in a caution statement that they extracted the bones from the body, but Kamanga opted out on account that he did not have the money.
The investigator said the police recovered eight bones when they raided Yohane’s home in Machinga.
Another raid allegedly led to the recovery of 12 bones of a different person with albinism which were being kept in the house of Chileka, who is being accused of contacting Muhosha in search of a buyer for Masambuka’s bones.
Said Zimba: “When Kamanga said he did not have money, they contacted Chileka who promised to find a market. It was at this point that he started discussing with Muhosha, who indicated that he would buy the bones.”
The deal dragged until the police started arresting the suspects.
The State tendered in court transcripts of a WhatsApp conversation in which Chileka is portrayed as alerting the priest that the noose was tightening as the interrogations underway were likely to lead to their arrest.
The online chat, which Muhosha wanted to be discarded from State evidence on account that it breaches privacy contrary to Section 21 of the Constitution, contains a purported plot to pay the police to destroy evidence.
In some texts, Chileka asks Muhosha, who is addressed as ‘biggie’, to quickly shell money to get a lawyer to secure a release of the detained suspects and palm-oil police officers to erase evidence.
Cross-examinations of Zimba resume this Wednesday and pathologist Dr Charles Dzamalala, who conducted a postmortems and tested the bones for DNA, will testify on Friday.
As the deceased’s family seeks justice in anticipation for closure, the State, led by Dr Steve Kalua, was optimistic that they will secure some convictions. n